We have all heard about or witnessed small children having meltdowns at Walt Disney World. It is worse when the children are your own. The Most Magical Place on Earth can turn into an expensive place to sulk in less time than it takes for a Mickey Bar to begin melting in August.
Here are some tried and true tips for helping your little ones stay content and enjoy themselves as you make magical memories.
1. Be Mindful of Your Child’s Schedule and Preferences
Some children are amazingly flexible, but others tend to cling rigidly to a schedule. If your child normally needs a nap or some quiet time at home, he is going to need that while you are on vacation as well. If he is normally in bed by 7:30, an After Hours event might not be a great fit for you just yet.
If you have a particularly flexible child, use that to your advantage. But if your child needs his routine, work around it as much as possible. You will still have a magical time.
2. Take Breaks
If you see your child is going to need a break, take one before it is too late. It may be as simple as walking into a nice air-conditioned space. Did you know that each park provides a baby care center where parents can take babies to take care of their basic needs?
If you are exceptionally lucky, you might have a little one who can enjoy a nice nap on the go, and a snooze in a stroller while the rest of your travel party has a meal or does some shopping might be just the ticket. Maybe you can find a nice napping spot in a longer attraction with some relief from the heat like Hall of Presidents.
You might even need to do what my family does and schedule a daily mid-day break into your plans. I have found that I can barely function without one, so it is as much for myself as it is for my little ones.
People really, really want to squeeze in as much active “park time” as possible, but when it comes to little ones, investing time into avoiding burn out and meltdowns can add more quality to the hours you have in the parks.
3. Bring a Stroller or a Carrier
If your child is not used to walking miles and miles a day, certainly consider bringing along a stroller or wearing a carrier (bonus points if the stroller has a large canopy or the carrier has a hood).
Strollers serve several purposes: they help to avoid achy feet and fatigue, they provide shade from the sun, and they provide a place for a little separation if your child is getting overstimulated.
If you cannot travel with a stroller, Disney rents them in the parks on a first-come, first-served basis, and they are available for rent offsite as well. There is some benefit to using an offsite company that will deliver to your resort because sometimes the walk from the parks to Disney transportation and then from transportation to your room can be long, and carrying a little one is not always easy.
If you are on the fence about bringing a stroller, bring the stroller. If you think your child might still need one but worry people will judge you for having a child who is too old for a stroller in a stroller, bring the stroller.
Some kids can take on Disney just fine at 4 or 5, especially if their families are conservative in their plans, but other kids cannot, especially if their families “Disney” hard. My mother always says, “It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” and in this case it is true.
4. Bring Plenty of Snacks and Drink Plenty of Water
Avoiding hunger is another key to avoiding meltdowns (for all ages-grownups get hangry, too!). While there are dozens of delectable Disney snacks for sale, Disney also gives guests the option of bringing their own. Many children would just as happily munch on goldfish crackers from the store than Disney’s Mickey Shaped version. A piece of fruit or some raisins may be an easy snack, too.
We bring a variety of snacks along for my littlest traveler, and she looks forward to peeking in the bag to see what she has waiting for her. Of course, she likes a Disney treat once in a while, too. But we bring our own to help keep the snacking affordable.
More importantly, Disney gets very hot, and keeping yourself and your little ones hydrated needs to be a priority, not just to avoid meltdowns, but to avoid the need to seek medical attention.
Bringing along a refillable bottle full of water is a great option because you can stop at one of Disney’s water refill stations to fill it back up. You can also always find free cups of water at any of Disney’s Quick Service locations.
5. Use FastPass+ to Your Advantage
Be sure to book your 3 FastPasses for you and your family in advance, and be sure to keep your child in mind when making your selections. There are some rides geared towards children that you probably will not need a FastPass for, but others like Peter Pan or Frozen Ever After can have substantial waits.
Using FastPasses will allow you to avoid long waits that can make little kids antsy.
You can also use rider swap to your advantage if you have a little one. One adult is able to wait with the child while the other experiences and attraction. Then, the adult who rode the attraction takes over the child care, and the second rider can use the FastPass line to hop on.
To set up a rider swap, find a Cast Member with an iPad to assist you (usually near the ride entrance).
Once you use your initial FastPasses, you can pick up one at the time. Check out Character Locator for all the best tips and tricks for scoring FastPasses as you go.
You might consider trying to book your first three FastPasses back to back if you can. That way, you will probably have time to use them before your little one gets too grumpy to enjoy anything.
Keep in mind, FastPasses give you an hour return window, so you can use them at any time during that time. You can also enjoy attractions with low wait times between FastPasses.
6. Avoid Doing Too Many Sit Down Meals
Some children really enjoy restaurants, but others get very antsy and grumpy during long meals. My little girl could happily be a “lady who lunches” every single day, and she loves character dining more than just about anything else in the parks.
My little boy, on the other hand, has a small tolerance for long meals, but they are not something he can handle every day, especially when there is so much fun to be had elsewhere. As a result, we plan sit down meals strategically.
Keep in mind that sit down meals can be lengthy even with advanced dining reservations. Plan at least an hour for a typical table service meal and 90 minutes or more for a character buffet or a signature meal. Plus, it is possible that the restaurant will be running a bit behind once you get there.
Tired, hungry children and waits can be a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, Disney has many great quick service options for a quicker way to eat.
If you do have little kids, and you do want to schedule a meal, I would highly recommend doing breakfast before your child has time to get worn out.
If you find you have overbooked the long meals or that your child doesn’t like character meals, remember you can cancel reservations penalty-free within 24 hours.
7. Build up to Character Encounters
Some children really love characters and are excited to meet them anytime, anywhere. Others think they are terrifying.
One of the biggest “Disney with kids” mistakes I have ever made is making a character meal at Tusker House my toddler’s first experience in a theme park. We LOVE Tusker House, but it is a loud place. The noise, the crowds, and the movement to and from the buffet were already overstimulating.
By the time we had our first character come to the table, my little one was already over the whole thing. In hindsight, we should have built up to it instead of going: bus, park entrance, character meal.
Since that experience, I have met some clever parents who suggest finding some characters closer to home you can take your child to meet before you go on your Disney trip.
Mascots at local sporting events, the Easter Bunny, and characters at play zones are all good ways to see how your child might react to a big, fuzzy character.
If you cannot arrange this, you might also try doing a meet with a single favorite character in the parks before you commit to a meal where your child screams every time one of the Fab 5 gets near the table and is too upset to eat a rather pricey buffet.
You may also want to build up to meeting the character instead of having the interaction be the very first thing you do when you hit the parks. Let your little one take his/her surroundings in and test the waters before you introduce something he/she may be uncertain of.
8. Let Them Decide
While Disney is fun, it is a place where little ones have very few choices to make other than to go along with what their travel party is doing. Many toddlers and preschoolers are in stages of life where choice becomes very important and meltdowns can ensue as a result.
So if your child really doesn’t want to wear a princess dress or really doesn’t want to taste the Food and Wine festival treat, it may be best to just say “okay.”
I am also a big supporter of letting your child decide whether he wants to try an attraction or do a character meet or participate in a show. Now, there are some children out there who really do love the things they are talked into, but there are others who have a miserable time, and it makes them shut down for the rest of the day.
If your child wants to back out of an attraction because he/she thinks it will be too scary, or if he/she wants to leave a show that is too loud or frightening, you might be well served to move on to something else.
9. Schedule time to Play
Little children were made to play. Certainly the shows and attractions and character experiences are fun, but they allow little time for active play.
While the parks are fun, it is natural for children to enjoy time where they are creating their own experiences instead of enjoying something someone else has dreamed up.
My own little boy loves roller coasters and thrill rides and dreams of doing them when we are not at Disney. But, sometimes we just need to go back to the resort so he can get away from the sensory overload of the parks to play and integrate what he has learned and discovered into his games. Sometimes an hour of playing with a handful of Star Wars Legos is more important for him to recharge than a nap.
Schedule a little bit of time to visit the pool or the splash pad if you are staying at a resort that has one. The parks also have a number of playgrounds and play areas where kids can have a different type of fun.
10. Pack a Change of Clothes
Small children have a way of attracting a mess. And some children cannot stand to have wet, dirty, or sticky clothes.
If your child falls into that camp, know these things: it rains a lot in Florida, many of the attractions involve water, and many of the snacks involve components that melt. If your child does not like being wet and/or sticky and you know it can trigger a meltdown, go ahead and plan accordingly.
At Disney, there is a high likelihood that at some point during your visit, your child will need a change of clothes. It isn’t impossible to avoid spills, and often times we never use the changes of clothes we bring, but in the words of Edna Mode, “luck favors the prepared.”
11. Consider Hearing Protection
Disney is a loud place, and many small children have sensitive ears. For some of them, the loud noises on rides, the volume levels of the shows, and even the general cacophony of the crowds can be too much. But for some the real trigger is fireworks.
If your little one is sensitive to lour noise, and you want him to enjoy Happily Ever After in Magic Kingdom or Nighttime Spectaculars like Fantasmic, consider bringing along hearing protection.
Both of my little ones LOVE Fantasmic, but they both wear their “earmuffs” for it because otherwise, they’d be too busy trying to hold their ears to enjoy it.
12. Be Flexible
It is a bit of a paradox to think of the concept of being flexible on a vacation that requires as much planning as a trip to Walt Disney World. And, when you work so hard to plan, you really do want everything to go according to the plan.
However, when traveling with children at least something unexpected is bound to come up, and you may need to sacrifice plans to meet the needs of your little one. If you miss a FastPass, find you need to cancel a character meal, miss getting a photo with a character in the name of addressing your child’s immediate needs, try not to let it spoil the day.
You will have so many other fun things to do, and most little ones are unaware that there is anything to miss out on because they have so much to experience.
So many parents want a magical Walt Disney World Vacation for their children, and as pricey as it is, they feel they really want to get as much bang for their buck as possible!
But sometimes the quest for happiness can lead to unhappiness, and some not so magical moments can ensue. Keep in mind that you know your child/children better than anyone.
Use what you know to your advantage, and be proactive with that knowledge. Have a Magical Time!